Picnics, paddleboats as Pyongyang celebrates

Image: A North Korean girl sings as her family have a picnic along the Taedong River in Pyongyang, North Korea
A North Korean girl sings as her family enjoy a picnic along the Taedong River in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Monday.Vincent Yu / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The party in Pyongyang stretched into Monday as North Koreans took the day off to celebrate a major political anniversary and to revel in the unveiling of leader Kim Jong Il's heir-apparent, son Kim Jong Un.

Families packed baskets with food and liquor they received from the government in honor of the occasion and picnicked along the Taedong River and on scenic Moran Hill. Others headed to an amusement park, filling the air with screams as they braved a serpentine rollercoaster and rammed one another in bumper cars.

The scenes of revelry in North Korea's showcase capital contradicted the austerity and shortages normally associated with this reclusive country of 24 million, and this was no ordinary weekend.

It was a national holiday, the last day of a long weekend of festivities to mark the 65th anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party founded by late President Kim Il Sung. The anniversary was more than just a milestone: It also provided North Koreans with a glimpse into the future as they got a good look at the young man slated to become their next leader.

"He has President Kim Il Sung's face," said Pak Chol, a 23-year-old who said he watched the live broadcast at home showing Kim Jong Un making his first major public appearance Sunday by joining his father for a massive military parade through the Pyongyang plaza named after his grandfather.

Until two weeks ago, Kim Jong Un's anointment as his father's successor was little more than rumor and speculation outside North Korea.

But his promotion to four-star general late last month, followed by his appointment to key political posts within the Workers' Party, confirmed what had been suspected for more than a year: that he is being groomed to succeed his 68-year-old father and to take the Kim family dynasty into a third generation.

Believed to be 26, the untested son would face a mountain of challenges if he were to take over soon as leader, including tensions with regional powers over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program and a faltering economy further strained by sanctions imposed by the U.S. and United Nations.

North Korea, with few natural resources and arable land, has struggled to feed its people since natural disasters battered its agricultural industry in the 1990s and aid from the former Soviet bloc dried up.

But the communist regime retains dominance, and across Pyongyang, residents seemed ready to embrace the son already familiarly known as the Young General. Though he has been a figure of mystery outside North Korea, adulation of the heir-apparent is already well in place inside the country.

Pak, who was touring a flower exhibition Monday, said he had heard of Kim Jong Un well before his public debut in North Korean state media two weeks ago.

"We had heard that when the Young General was young, he was admired by everyone who met him for his intelligence and good personality," he said.

Pak said seeing the son alongside leader Kim Jong Il gave him a surge of confidence.

"I truly felt the strength of our country when I saw the Great Leader Kim Jong Il and the Young General Kim Jong Un," he said. "If we have Gen. Kim Jong Il and young Gen. Kim Jong Un leading the country, we can open up the gates and become a stronger and more prosperous nation."

As on most major holidays, every North Korean got a special gift from the government. Pak said he and his family took the beer, Korean soju liquor, meat, fish and snacks in their bundles to Moran Hill for a picnic — a popular holiday tradition.

Families were also gathering under the willow trees along Taedong River, where they had a view of some of Pyongyang's grandest monuments, including Juche Tower, the palatial People's Study Hall and the massive bronze statue of Kim Il Sung that overlooks the city.

The Associated Press had a rare chance to chat with the families, away from events organized for the foreign media.

Three generations of one family feasted on beef stew, dumplings, tempura, blood sausage and kimchi, the spicy fermented cabbage that is Korea's most famous condiment. Further down the riverbank, a group of friends sang and clapped as one woman gave an impromptu dance performance before collapsing into giggles.

Down by the riverside, fathers were teaching their sons how to shoot at a miniature shooting range, while others clustered around a rattling foosball table. Others jumped into paddleboats that dotted the waterfront.

Jo Hyang Mi, eyes bright and cheeks flushed, took a break from a heated game of badminton to roll up her pant legs. Jo said she, too, watched Sunday's military parade on TV.

"I was so happy to see Kim Jong Un after he was elected vice-chairman of the military commission" of the Workers' Party's Central Committee, she said. "I feel happy and full of conviction knowing that our country is powerful and that our strength comes from the leadership of our Great Leader Kim Jong Il and from Kim Jong Un."

After three public appearances in two days, the two Kims stayed out of the spotlight Monday. Kim Jong Il held talks with Zhou Yongkang, a high-ranking member of the Communist Party of China's politburo, state-run media said.

Other top party, government and military officials attended a special anniversary concert at East Pyongyang Grand Theater. One of the songs was a comic skit to a song called "On the Banks of the Taedong River."

As the sun set, the lights went on at the Triumph Children's Park, an amusement park just a stone's throw from the Arch of Triumph where Kim Il Sung made a historic speech just days after founding the Workers' Party in 1945.

The park pulsated with neon, and tree branches laced with small lights gave the fair a festive air. Groups of friends posed for photos, and families crowded into fast food joints selling fried chicken, burgers, Belgian waffles and soft-serve ice cream cones.

Children raced around from ride to ride, lining up for bumper cars, a rollercoaster, a levitating pirate's ship and other fun fair standards.

One little boy begged his mother to let him on just one more ride — a familiar plea all the world over.